by Winnie Kay
Tumai learns of her family legacy and rises up from her anger with the hope of a new day.
WE'LL RISE UP
Tillie stood quietly beside Granny Mama, both fists clinched, fingernails biting into the palms of her hands with each strike until they bled. JJ looked like a bear hugging a tree with his hands bound around the wooden post in the yard. The whip cracked, cutting deep into the skin and pulling away pieces of flesh as it recoiled back to the punisher's feet, ready for the next blow.
Ordered to watch—and learn—they formed a circle around the unfortunate offender. She had witnessed other thrashings, punishment for some sort of infraction of the rules. This was not her first, but this…this was different.
After the twelfth blow, Sam boldly stepped between JJ and McDonald. “Yer point’s been made, Mr. Pat,” the black driver said. “No disrespect intended, but kill him, and Master Gerald won’t be none too pleased.”
“Better move, boy, lest you want some of this too.” The overseer grinned as he drew back the whip. “I reckon the bastard son of a house nigger can take one more for his smart mouth.”
Tillie felt her grandmother flinch beside her, but no one moved; no one spoke, their faces expressionless.
The thirteenth and final blow was the harshest, laying open a path from his right shoulder to the center of his back. Patrick McDonald raked his hand through his scraggly beard and eyed the slave's shredded flesh, as if admiring his handywork. He scanned the farmhands circled around him and cracked his whip in the dirt. Before he turned to go back to his horse and his bottle, he said, “Well, don’t just stand there. Get your dumb asses back to work. There’s still an hour’s worth of daylight left.”
The girl understood plantation politics, even at the young age of nine. As brutal as the whipping was, old Sam had to hold McDonald back, for JJ’s skill with the construction and maintenance of the dikes was needed back in the insect-infested rice marshes. JJ was a proud man. And she knew that a proud black man in South Carolina in 1860 was a dangerous thing to be.
Sam and a few of the men approached the beaten man. JJ never uttered a sound as they untied him from the post and he fell to the ground.
Tillie followed her grandmother into the tiny cabin. The menfolk gently laid him on the bed, face down. The big man groaned and looked at the girl while his mother tended to the stripes on his back. He held out his hand.
“Come here, Tumai.” Tillie approached the bed and placed her bloody hand in his.
“I’m sorry, Papa.” She saw the torn flesh up close and the tears finally began to fall.
“Sorry for what, child?”
“Sorry that I’m not big enough to kill that man…to kill ‘em all.”
“I see. So you’re angry, are ya?” JJ said with a grin, then winced as Bertha dabbed the salve on her son’s back.
“Yes, sir, I’m angry. Ain’t you? Ain’t you mad at what they done, Papa?”
Tillie never got an answer. The grip her father had on her hand relaxed, and he finally succumbed to a welcomed unconsciousness.
“Let your papa rest, Tumai.” Bertha put the jar of salve and some bandages in her apron pocket and went outside. Tillie followed. They sat on the front steps and watched the others head back down the hill to the rice fields.
“Hold out them hands,” the old woman said. She brought out the salve and began to treat the girl’s fingernail-pierced palms. “Anger ain’t a bad thing, but ya gotta know how to control it…how to use it—”
“All's I gotta learn is how to kill ‘em, Granny Mama,” Tillie interrupted.
Bertha finished with the bandages and took a deep breath. “Sure enough, you are your papa’s child. Too bad you didn’t get to know your mama. She was a gentle soul and loved JJ fiercely. She passed right after you was born, but not before your daddy named you. ‘Tumai,’ he had said as he raised you up and cried for his dying wife. ‘You will be called Tumai.’ Sarah took one look at you and nodded. She whispered, ‘Yes, Tumai is perfect,’ then closed her eyes and died.”
“I heard all this before. I know my mama died birthin’ me. I know they named me Tumai that mean hope in African. And I know the white folk don’t allow no Africa names for us slaves, so everybody call me Tillie. What all dis got to do with Papa getting beat?” The girl picked up a small pebble and threw it at the chickens pecking in the yard. They squawked and flittered around.
"Stop pesterin' them poor birds and turn around here, Miss Know-It-All," her grandmother ordered. “It’s time you heard the whole story.”
Knowing all too well Granny Mama's wrath if disobeyed, Tillie turned to face the old woman.
"Before you was born, before your mama and papa was born, before I was even born, my own mama lived free. There weren't no chains, no whips, no overseers or slave drivers like ole Sam. Her daddy named her Aisha. That means life in African. She was only ten when they took her in the night—just ‘bout your age…”
Tillie didn’t care about someone long dead from some place far away. She cared about her papa and the here-and-now. In spite of the pain in her bandaged hands, she formed fists again. I’ll never be beaten like that, she swore to herself.
Through the open cabin door, JJ listened to his mother tell the familiar story passed down from generation to generation. He lay on his stomach, eyes closed. Tumai have a fire in her, a hunger for justice, he thought as he sat up. It was time his daughter learned about the family legacy. He stood and walked out on the porch.
“Papa, how you up and around already? After that beating?” Tillie turned and asked.
“I’m much better, baby girl.” JJ and his mother exchanged a knowing nod as the big man settled into the old rocking chair.
Bertha continued her story.
“Aisha’s father, Zuberi Attah, was a powerful shaman honored by his tribe. His only daughter was his life, his heart. Then the English slavers came in the night and stole the medicine man's greatest joy. She heard her father’s words echo through the jungle as they carried her to the ships that would take her across the great water. My mother never forgot his curse, his gift of healing, and his prophecy. It was in African, but went something like this:
‘Any man or woman, white or black, who lays hurtful hands upon Aisha Attah—daughter of Zuberi Attah of the tribe of Maasai—and her offspring from generation to generation shall be struck dead. Their passing will cause a powerful and immediate healing of any wounds inflicted upon her and her descendants. Then the fourth generation of Zuberi Attah will emerge with hope. A whole nation will rise up against injustice. There will be a great war, a bloody war, and all our people taken from their home will be free of bondage. I invoke this in the name of the great and powerful Engai Nanyokie.’ "
Tillie sat up and listened with new interest. “Where is she now, my great-grandmother?”
“I don’t rightly know. She’d be just past seventy now. I never saw my mama again after I was taken from the Franklin Jacobs’s Plantation up north and sold to Master Gerald James down here in Georgetown.”
“Why they sell you, Granny Mama?”
“Master Jacob's son beat me and forced hisself on me when I was fifteen. Then the boy got bitten by a rattler, and he up and died. My cuts and bruises healed by the next day. Mr. Franklin grieved for months until he couldn't bear to look at me. He blamed me for Junior's death, called me a witch, and sent me away. During the long trip down the Pee Dee River, I birthed James Jacobs—that what the new owner named him. But I called him JJ.”
“It was the curse that killed that boy, huh?" Tillie looked up at JJ. "Let me see your back, Papa." He stood and turned. She saw the torn flesh had healed. Then she looked at her bandaged hands. "But why my hands still hurt? Why ain't they healed?”
“Cause you made that pain yourself. Zuberi Attah’s gift of healing only works when another harms us. You did that to yourself, out of anger, so you must heal Nature's way—from the inside out,” JJ explained.
As the sun began to set below the trees to the west of the rice fields, Patrick McDonald lay dead in the muddy marshes of South Carolina. The field hands found him the next morning with his whip wrapped around his neck.
To everyone’s surprise, JJ was at his post, working the dikes’ levers, despite his severe beating just over twelve hours ago.
Tumai waved at her papa from the hill, her anger replaced by hope. She no longer felt helpless. Because of the words spoken by her great-great-grandfather four generations ago in a land far away, she and her family were protected and avenged. She knew a great war was coming—a bloody war…
And then we all gonna rise up, like a new day.
[1st Place Winner of July 2017 "Rhythms & Writing: Official WDC Contest" ]